What is Going on Inside When You Get Triggered in a Conflict

In conflicts, the other person may say something that triggers a part of you and pulls you out of Self (a grounded, compassionate, non-reactive place). You end up being angry, defensive, or withdrawn, and you usually don’t communicate well. This is because you perceive the other person to be a threat and because a need of yours is not being met. The threat is something you perceive the other person as doing to you, such as judging you. The threat and the need usually go together. For example, if you perceive them as judging you, then your need for acceptance or self-esteem is probably not being met. It is very useful to understand what the threat and need are in each situation because it will help you to understand what is upsetting you and therefore to change your reaction and get back to Self.

When you feel threatened, it usually triggers at least two IFS parts. One is an exile—a child part in pain—whose pain is being triggered by the threat and the lack of the need. For example, if you feel judged by someone and therefore not accepted, it may trigger an exile who feels worthless.  The second is a protector who tries to protect you from the pain of that exile. For example, a part may get defensive in order to try to prove that it wasn’t your fault and you shouldn’t feel worthless.

Whenever you have difficulty getting to Self quickly, call a time out and explore what got triggered in you. Use this format to do that. Start with the threat you see in the other person. The threat is your interpretation of what the person did. It may be that they are actually judging you or trying to control you or withdrawing from you or some other threat, or it may be that you perceive it that way even though they aren’t. Or you may exaggerate the degree of threat. Once you have a sense of the threat your perceive, get in touch with what need isn’t being met.

Then explore what parts are involved, looking for both the exile and the protector. Each of these parts will have one or more emotional reactions to the other person based on the threat and need. Paying attention to your feelings will help you to access these parts.

You can also do this exploration about interactions you have had in the past with someone, especially if they happen repeatedly.

Of course, the other person is probably also dealing with these same four things, so when you are attempting to understand them, use this same framework. They perceive something you do as a threat, and they have a need that is not being met. It is usually their protector that says the things that upset you, so it is especially helpful to understand that the person actually has a vulnerable exile in pain underneath, even if you don’t see it. In the example of the person who is judging you, that judgment is coming from a protector who might be protecting an exile who feels abandoned or hurt or controlled by you. If it were an abandoned exile, the threat would be abandonment and the unmet need might be consistency.

There are four general categories of interpersonal needs—autonomy, safety, value, and connection. I have listed below common threats, needs, exiles, and protectors in each of these categories. This will also help to clarify what these categories mean. These concepts are derived from IFS, the Pattern System, and from my book Interactive Group Therapy.

Autonomy

Threats: Domination, control, manipulation, exploitation

Needs: Freedom, power, autonomy, assertiveness

Exiles: Powerless, exploited, manipulated, controlled

Protectors: Dominating, controlling, defiant, angry, distancing

Safety

Threats: Violence, anger, betrayal, deception, violation, engulfment

Needs: Safety from violence or anger, protection, trust, boundaries

Exiles: Fearful, deceived, betrayed, violated, engulfed

Protectors: Angry, suspicious, defiant, distancing, rigid boundaries, tough, conflict avoiding

Value

Threats: Judgment, disapproval, misunderstanding, devaluing, blame

Needs: Self-esteem, appreciation, approval, acceptance, understanding

Exiles: Worthless, deficient, guilty, ashamed, inadequate, incompetent

Protectors: Blaming, defensive, prideful, self-effacing

Connection

Threats: Abandonment, rejection, withdrawal, coldness, distance, dismissal, being ignored, being excluded, disrespect

Needs: love, intimacy, being wanted, belonging, attention, caring, compassion, support, interest, respect, consistency

Exiles: Insecure, abandoned, needy, lonely, not valued, ashamed, rejected, excluded

Protectors: Dependent, caretaking, pleasing, merging, charming, need denying, distancing, self-effacing